Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th May 2016

Screaming Blue MurderAnother Friday night at the Screaming Blue Murder club and they’d gone back to the original seating plan – no side seats so that people could stare into the comic’s ears. But that wasn’t the main topic of conversation before curtain up – we had a “technical problem” which meant that the show started a good half hour late. I know what the “technical problem” was, but I am sworn to secrecy. All I can say about it is: hahahahahaha.

Dan EvansA downside to starting late is that, if you’ve got a rowdy crowd, they’ve got another thirty minutes to get even more tanked up than normal. Such was the predicament facing Dan Evans when he came on to warm us all up. Within seconds of his opening gambit, a chap in the front row started commenting on Dan’s new trainers. (To be fair, they were very nice.) From then on, you could hardly shut him or his mates up. And there was something… slightly threatening about them. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t threatened, oh no sirree. But I sensed others were. So the question is, do you engage with them and let them make themselves look like a fool (can be funny) or do you ignore them? Minimal engagement seemed the best option. Unfortunately, one of our acts went for a more head-to-head alternative. More of that later.

JoJo SmithOur first act was someone that we might have seen before – if so it was before I started blogging – Jo Jo Smith. Ms Smith is one helluva ballsy woman. You know the type. Sex was either the main topic or a subtopic in almost every sentence she spoke, and she was only too keen to share her experience of her post-menopausal dried-up vagina. This was particularly embarrassing for the wholesome Indian family sat in the front row. Only the father roared his head off the whole night. His offspring and his wife sat with their head in the hands wishing the earth to open up. So that Ms Smith didn’t engage with the difficult lads (quite right) she turned her attention to the Indians. Knowing the taboo nature of sex in India, the last thing those youngsters wanted was to have to confess to the nature of their sex lives in front of their parents. Their discomfort was pretty funny though. Ms Smith gave good value and we laughed a lot. She called me a silver fox, so she can’t be all bad.

Dane BaptisteOur second act, and someone we have seen before, very recently, was Dane Baptiste. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Monsieur Baptiste (I continue to use his French title) is one of the most incisive and intelligent comics on stage today. Having seen him so recently I thought his act would largely be a repeat of what we’d seen before – but no, there was a lot of new stuff there. I absolutely loved his material about how straight guys need to have a lesbian best friend. And he dealt with the awkward guys extremely well. He has the audience in the palm of his hand and gives the most confident, assertive, but never remotely offensive, delivery. A total star in my book.

Howard ReadOur final act was Howard Read – again someone who is a frequent guest at these Screaming Blue Nights. He is a naturally most gifted comedian and has loads of material about fatherhood – including his famous lullaby, which I think he has sung every time he has been here but it is such a funny piece we’re always happy to hear it again. Unfortunately, he tried to take the difficult guys on and didn’t entirely win, so I felt we lost some valuable laughter time overall. Nevertheless, he did a great job in maybe slightly trying circumstances.

That’s it for summer! No more Screaming Blue Murders until September. Why not get booking now!

Review – Soul, The untold story of Marvin Gaye, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2016

SoulTell you what, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. After all, we’ve all got one. Although I think mine is a bit different from most people’s. Here’s mine: Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby. What? I was thinking of favourite Marvin Gaye songs, landsakes! Yep, I was nine when that came out. Even at that tender age I had decided that I Heard it through the Grapevine was a bit self-indulgently dour. But Too Busy was a happy song and I loved the fact that Marv didn’t get around to singing the title line until the end of the second chorus, he just let his backing singers do the rest. Funny the things you remember!

Nathan Ives-MoibaI was slightly alarmed when I realised that Soul was written by Roy Williams because I really didn’t like his Days of Significance which I saw earlier this year. However, this is a vastly superior work. It’s the story of the life of Marvin Gaye, as seen through the eyes of his two sisters Jeanne and Zeola – in fact the play was inspired by Jeanne’s memoir and the writer interviewed both sisters to obtain original, first-hand material. We see Marvin Snr and Alberta’s first meeting, followed by their quick marriage; fresh-faced young Marvin being brought up with his sisters; Keenan Munn-Francishis father’s ruthless dealing out of violent discipline on the boy; his subsequent facing up to his father; his brief spell in the Air Force; then his developing career, but how it never brought him happiness. The second act is a thrilling but despairing look at the family’s life together in The Big House in Gramercy Place, Los Angeles; Marvin’s decline into cocaine addiction and vodka consumption; and finally his death at the hands of his father, who shot him when he was possessed with sheer anger – which struck me as being pretty much his father’s default mentality from the start.

Marvin Snr the TyrantEveryone knows that Marvin Gaye was killed by his father; so right from the start this play is fashioned as a classic tragedy – we already know its sad ending. We have our central tragic hero, and our villain, Marvin Snr; he accuses his son of sexual shenanigans with his mother so we also have some Oedipal content; Jeanne and Zeola watch from the outside and comment as the drama is played out, so they assume the role of the Chorus. Within seconds of the play starting we know that Marvin Snr’s God-fearing nature is of the brutal and unforgiving kind, refusing to have anything to do with Alberta’s child from an earlier union, and degrading his son into a whimpering mess with the application of his belt. You sense that from here on in, any happiness is only ever going to be temporary. Marvin Jnr’s professional (or otherwise) relationship with Tammi Terrell is brought to a vivid end on stage as she collapses on the floor with a brain tumour, just as they were making sweet music together (literally). Nathan Ives-Moiba and Abiona OmonuaThe church that Marvin Jnr promises Marvin Snr never materialises. In the background, marriages take place, followed by divorces. Marvin Snr is revealed as a serial womaniser and a cross-dresser, which is an interesting combo. Alberta’s cancer takes hold and makes her weaker. There’s not a lot of happiness here – which makes a fascinating contrast with the frequently recurring and uplifting gospel music performed by the fantastic Royal and Derngate Community Choir. Nevertheless, I didn’t find the play remotely gloomy. I thought it was a fascinating study of two men who were their own worst enemy, and who, for 99% of the time, were at each other’s throats. The 1% when they weren’t, as epitomised in the very final scene, was very emotional. Marvin Jnr had a tear rolling down his cheek in that final scene – and I think I did too.

A song is bornJon Bausor has created an amazing set which not only looks absolutely the bees’ knees, but also solves that problem of how to create several acting spaces on the tiny stage of the Royal. When you enter the auditorium, it’s clear we’re in a church, with Pentecostal blue curtains behind a devout looking podium, and plush carpeted stairs flowing down into the audience, taking out Row A with the majestic sweep of their woollen twist. Before it started, I did confess to Mrs Chrisparkle that at any moment Kenny Everett could emerge from behind the curtain with his huge hands shouting Brother-lee love! Yes, I know, tasteless. Above the stage, Marvin’s parents’ bedroom, dominated by a cross. Downstairs, basic furniture that provides sufficient but not excessive comfort. For the second act, a much more luxurious main room, with a Brother and sisterscarpeted set of stairs with so deep a pile you could lose an entire foot in it; an enviable set of hifi separates (made my mouth water) and The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s massive orange leather three-piece suite that she bought in 1973 when she was feeling flush. A really superb, flexible and accurately furnished set. Also, hats off for the lighting design with its variety of moods and uses – subtle yet very effective.

Final sceneThe performances are really strong throughout and I thought each member of the cast absolutely gave it their all. As our guides to the story, I really enjoyed the performances of Petra Letang and Mimi Ndiweni as Jeanne and Zeola, the older sister more headstrong and traditional, the younger more fun-loving and forgiving. They had a nice double-act going, with gentle bickering about how much of the story to reveal and with divided loyalties when it came to supporting one family member over another. I’d spotted young Keenan Munn-Francis in the cast of The Scottsboro Boys as being One To Watch, and I must say he is on great form here as the young Marvin, singing sweetly and boldly standing up to his father’s tyranny. Nice boxing work too! Adjoa Andoh, as Alberta, trod the tricky path of supporting her difficult husband even when Adjoa Andohhe’s patently the family despot; beautifully trying to smooth the waters of family disharmony and doing her best always to support her son. There’s also a cracking performance by Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell, a 60s vision of psychedelia, firmly putting Marvin in his place and giving us a hint of their fantastic duet. Yes, I agree, it would have been terrific to hear them perform You Are Everything all the way through, but drama must have its way.

Mimi NdiweniAt the heart of the story is the antagonistic relationship between father and son, and this created some terrific electricity on stage. Leo Wringer is excellent as Marvin Snr; in his younger days inscrutably malign, you sense hiding his bullying and controlling nature beneath the façade of the Church, using attack as the best form of defence when his womanising ways are found out; in his later years, a slow contempt for his son continually growing – although you do get the sense that if only Marvin Jnr had kept his promise and given him his church, he would have been happy simply to control and domineer his worshippers and not his family. Nathan Ives-Moiba is perfect as Marvin Jnr; at first ambitious and dedicated to his work – I loved the brief dance/dream sequence of him at the piano, Marvin's drinking againtrying to create a masterpiece – only to be overwhelmed by his drug addiction and reduced to pathetic desperation, paranoia making him believe there are people outside “out to get him”, and scrabbling round the floor in his dressing gown trying to save spilt coke. His death is provocatively staged, with him offering himself up to his father, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross; but, like Eleanor Rigby, no one was saved.

Marvin and TammiI came away from this production awed and thrilled. Full of passion, tragedy, and the frailty of man. I felt desperately sorry for the characters but totally impressed with the insight into what Marvin Gaye’s life – and death – must have been like. A co-production with the Hackney Empire, it’s moving to that theatre on 15th June after its season at the Royal and Derngate has ended. Cannot recommend it too highly!

Review – Chicago, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd May 2016

ChicagoSpeaking as the ultimate A Chorus Line fan, I’m not entirely certain why I keep going to see Chicago. Whilst, on the face of it, you might think the two have a lot in common, being 1970s American musicals featuring the expertise of the top two choreographers of the age, well… yes, but that’s about it. A Chorus Line wears its heart on its sleeve as it exposes the reality of the dancers’ lives and cuts away the crap from people to reveal their true souls; Chicago, on the other hand, aggrandises sham. It relishes the glitzy, show-offy facades of its characters in the quest for ultimate celebrity. A Chorus Line strives to present you good, decent, real people in real time auditioning in the same theatre where you are sitting; Chicago celebrates law-breakers who attempt to get off scot-free by fluttering their manipulative, sexually provocative eyelashes at the court and (more importantly) the media. A Chorus Line asserts that everyone is special; Chicago pokes fun at failures.

Lindsey TierneyYou’ve also got that massive difference in choreographic and costume style. Michael Bennett gave his dancers subtlety and style; exhilaration for sure, but happy, tasteful exhilaration; and, above all, artistry. Bob Fosse gave his Chicagoans open legs and bending over backwards to satisfy. Bennett’s dancers wore audition gear and then silver and gold spangles for their finale; Fosse’s wear black chiffon and fishnets, somewhere in the Cabaret/Rocky Horror spectrum. Chicago seems to represent almost everything that A Chorus Line isn’t. It kind of therefore follows that, as a huge lover of Chorus Line, I really don’t like Chicago – the show – at all. Its saving grace is its songs – particularly the tunes – which are punchy and fun and memorable.

Sophie Carmen-JonesNevertheless, I went to the Royal and Derngate full of enthusiasm and expectation because I was hoping for a top quality production that would emphasise all the good things about the show. I know I’m a Bennett boy and not a Fosse follower but, at the end of the day, you have to admit it, Bob Fosse was a creative genius. Sadly, I thought the show overall was – as the young people of today might say – a bit meh. IMHO there’s a big problem with the orchestra pod jutting too far out into the stage to provide a satisfactory dance space. With no depth to the stage, everything has to be wide and shallow; and when this causes actors and dancers with this level of talent to bump into each other – something’s not right.

Sam BaileySecondly there is – dare I say it – the choreography. There were two elements to my disappointment. The first problem stares at you from the programme: “Original Choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse; Re-creation of Original Choreography by Gary Chryst”. It’s as though Fosse’s vision has been passed down the line in a series of Chinese Whispers – I felt what I saw was a very watered down version of how good it could have been; Fosse-lite. Secondly, we’ve now been spoilt by that splendid young dancemaster Drew McOnie having seen his Leicester Curve Chicago in 2013. You don’t need to have a contest between the two about who’s the best choreographer – but what you did get from the Leicester production was the first-hand vision of what the presentation should be like, not third- or fourth-hand. And it shows.

John PartridgeAs for the performances – let’s start high and recognise that, in the show we saw, Roxie was played by the understudy Lindsey Tierney and she was absolutely magnificent. Cool as a cucumber, choreographically spot on, a great vocal performance, and completely looking the part. We both thought she was terrific. I also really enjoyed Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma, full of attitude and spirit, a great singer and dancer, nice comic delivery and, what’s the point of denying it, she’s pretty cute too. Much has been made of X-Factor winner Sam Bailey appearing as Mama Morton. I’m afraid we don’t watch that so I hadn’t a clue who she was. She has a strong stage presence and can certainly belt out a song, but I don’t think she conveyed enough of the character’s deviousness or financial greed. In the past I have felt that Mama Morton might have a certain sexual curiosity about her girls too, which gives the character a bit of extra depth; but there was no suggestion of that here.

Neil DittI’m a great admirer of John Partridge, who plays the lawyer Billy Flynn, but I had heard conflicting reports about his performance. Billy Flynn is one of those characters that you can interpret in many ways. When I saw Chicago in 1979 the role was taken by Ben Cross and he played it (if I remember rightly) fairly serious and arrogant on stage. In the Leicester version David Leonard played Flynn as a completely lascivious sleazebag. Here, Mr Partridge portrays him absolutely true to the spirit of this production – the height of façade, of celebrity pretence; of total amorality. He plays up to the crowd, he adopts a smarmy grin, he calls out for applause for his long sustained note, he milks the showbizziness of the role for all it’s worth. It’s all show-off and look-at-me. But when you get right to the heart of the character – which, if he has one, is money – if you come between him and his $5000, he’ll cut you dead and no sympathy. When Roxie clearly becomes a more lucrative client than Velma, this Flynn delights in squishing the latter’s courtroom appeal chances. If you were going to try to tap into this Flynn’s generous nature – you’d spend a long time tapping. Of course, Mr Partridge is a song and dance man par excellence, and his vocals and stage presence are great as always. It’s a shame he doesn’t have any remotely challenging or artistic dancing to do until the second act – but Razzle Dazzle is definitely worth waiting for.

A D RichardsonNeil Ditt makes a good Amos, although (and I know comparisons are odious) he’s much more a figure of fun than in previous productions I’ve seen, where the pathos of Mr Cellophane could bring a tear to your eye. A D Richardson sang the Mary Sunshine role absolutely splendidly and in many respects this was the most realistic performance of this role I’ve ever seen; but I was surprised how flat and undramatic her “reveal” scene turned out to be. Maybe a little rushed? Ben Atkinson’s orchestra throw themselves into John Kander’s fantastic tunes with immense gusto and appropriate irreverence – I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed supine conducting before.

So despite some very good aspects, I still left feeling slightly deflated. I think it’s the amorality that depresses me. What can I say? If amorality is your spice of life, you’ll love it! The tour continues throughout the country right through to December.

P. S. Theatre etiquette observation #341a. The gentleman behind me decided that Miss Carmen-Jones’ voice was not sufficient for the task so sang along – without inhibition – to the song All That Jazz. Every so often he forgot the words and allowed the professional to take charge, but then he would remember them again and join in. I did three of my glares – each getting steadily more aggressive – but to no avail. I decided that if he also chose to sing along to the next song I would turn around and tell him to shut up (and suffer the consequences, if he then chose to harangue me for the rest of the evening.) Fortunately he wasn’t that well rehearsed with the rest of the show. Moral: if you’re in a show and one of your favourite songs comes on, remember that miming to it retains the mystery of your voice and we’ll never know quite how good you are at singing. Otherwise, shut the **** up.

Review – The End, Phone Box Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St. Peter’s Church, Northampton, 19th May 2016

The EndNot inappropriately, The End was the last of the Flash Festival plays I saw this year. Not only the end of my Flash experience – which had been thoroughly enjoyable – but also the end (probably) of everyone’s experience unless we all followed our instructions and made it to the safe zone. Confused? No need. Here’s the science bit: set in the very near future, the government released a vaccination to cure cancer; and though it was successful there was an unfortunate side effect – it killed 140,000 of the people who received it. I say killed; that’s not strictly true. The vaccine went on to cause rapid cell regeneration in the bodies, but the minds and the brains remained destroyed – yes, gentle reader, we have a zombie population half the size of Northampton.

But we, here in the church, are clean. We are healthy. We have undergone considerable scrutiny just to get inside the venue, with the gun-wielding Roach checking our bags (he made me unzip an empty compartment inside my bag, so glad he didn’t find anything suspicious) and the more gentlemanly Scruff doing a physical health check (he asked me if I had any marks on my arms, and was a little concerned at how long I took to answer, but I think I convinced him I was uninfected). Harper, the leader, is waiting for us at the end of the seats, with more questions and a frosty kind of welcome. You certainly feel unsettled, and even if you’re tempted to engage in a little giggle along the way, it doesn’t take long before Roach puts you back in your place with a gruff retort or a shove of his gun. This is not The Romper Room.

Phone Box castThe only structural problem with this play is that, if you are one of the first to take your seats, it takes a long time to get going because everyone behind you has to go through the comprehensive security check. It very much adds to a sense of occasion and/or fear; but, in the end, you are sitting around, basically waiting for something to happen – although it does give you an opportunity to share your experience with your fellow zombie survivors. Once it does all get going it’s extremely exciting and thought provoking. Harper has a perfect plan for us all to escape; transport is arranged, and the route double-checked. However, sadly, the driver upon whom we were all relying has died and so we’re left with fewer chances of getting to the safe area. And it’s a helluva long way away too. The first stage is that we have to walk to Birmingham. That’s a big ask.

We meet the fourth member of the group, Faith, whom I’m sure was only given that name so that they could use the terrific joke about losing faith (No! She’s here!) Undercurrents of resentment abound, as Roach doesn’t believe a woman can do the top job, and Scruff resents Roach’s attitude, and Harper fights to retain her superiority, and Faith is offering us biscuits. When it becomes clear that Faith has actually become infected herself, Roach is all for shooting her there and then. But Harper intercedes and we discover that Faith and Harper are more than just friends; nevertheless, Faith remains a health hazard to us all and will die anyway. We’re all expecting Roach to shoot her – but then Harper does it. As far as the overall survival of the group is concerned, it was the only safe thing to do (even though she was so very nice to everyone). The play ends with Roach dismissing us all from the church, hollering at us to leave in no uncertain language, and as we leave the church to rejoin the outside world, we reflect that there is no zombie apocalypse after all (well, not at the moment anyway) and that we’ve basically left the theatre without giving them a round of applause.

Phone BoxThe cast of four do a terrific job in keeping the tension and excitement up whilst still allowing for the injection of some humour, primarily through the delightful performance by Caroline Avis as the benign Faith who only wants to help and be supportive. I was really impressed by the no-nonsense attack and thinly disguised brutality of Daniel Gray’s Roach – Mr Gray really does do aggressive well. I was also very impressed by the performance by Connor McAvoy as Scruff; of all the cast I felt he was the one who most appreciated the situation we were all in and ran the gamut of all the appropriate emotions as our predicament worsened. It was a really intelligent performance; and he also provided a lot of the humour too. Matilda Hunt’s Harper was a naturally superior sort, every inch the queen of MI5, just about maintaining the authority she needed despite Roach’s Rottweiler tactics – another thoughtful and solid performance.

A memorable and disturbing piece. It’s hard to forget being chased out of a church by an intimidating maniac with gun telling you to f**k off, that really doesn’t happen every day. And Harper’s shooting of Faith with a deadly almost silent pistol was nerve-judderingly horrific. Now for that long walk to Birmingham – wish me luck.

Review – What If They Were Wrong, Two Funny, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 19th May 2016

What if they were wrongIt seems to me that there are a few versions of the title of this play, but we’ll stick with What If They Were Wrong. Not that the title gives you any indication what to expect anyway! Oppression is a dish best served cold says the programme – for that you have to wait until the final scene, and even then I’d say it was served piping hot, but that’s probably a matter of pure semantics.

The performing duo of Benjamin Williams and Cynthia Lebbos call themselves Two Funny and, boy, are they right. This was one of the funniest hours I’ve witnessed in many months. Using the art of clowning, they tell the story of a couple. They meet at adjacent picnics; he takes her to a restaurant; they get married; they live in domestic…bliss?; and finally, fed up with his laziness and untidiness, she sends him to the dungeon. Yes, that’s right, they appear to have a dungeon in the downstairs of their house. Enunciating only a few words but with many communicative grunts and gestures, they tell the story with remarkable clarity and a fabulous appreciation for surreal and slapstick humour. Who knew that stand-alone words like “naughty” or “reduced” could have such hilarious effect when in the right context?

Two Funny castThe audience involvement is considerable, which must be a quite a risk for the performers because they cannot know in advance how any one person is going to engage with them – and it really does require them to be fully participative! Audience members become a substantial part of the prop management department; they also become wedding guests, and even the vicar who marries the couple; one young man was required to read out a particularly lascivious extract from 50 Shades of Grey. But if either of these two actors came up to you and told you to make a fool of yourself in public – you’d just have to. They would be impossible to resist, such is the charm of their performance.

Mr Williams, in particular, gives an astonishingly physical performance, leaping up against the walls either side of the stage, doing one of the best banana-skin type pratfalls I have ever seen (particularly in such a tiny acting space), creating landscapes with his malleable facial features. At one stage I was laughing at whatever activity had just occurred, when he sat down on the couch in front of me and fixed me with his glare and just said “what?” – and it cracked me up all over again. But it’s not just clowning for clowning’s sake. Mr Williams wore one of those silly woollen hats with dog ear flaps that come down over your ears. If it came off or went askew he would scream with OCD distress until it was replaced perfectly – an excellent example of revealing a deeper character whilst still clowning. Miss Lebbos also has a brilliant physical comedy style, and I particularly liked her ability to break out of character completely and address the audience in a matter of fact way that you couldn’t quite work out if it was scripted or not. She looks all sweetness and light, so when she turns vindictive it’s a real shock to the system. And I certainly wasn’t expecting her to frog-march us all down to the dungeon.

Two FunnyYes indeed, gentle reader, we had to get up from our seats in the Hazlerigg studio and troop down two flights of stairs into the dungeon, where she had imprisoned Mr Williams for some ritual abuse. (This is where the oppression bit kicks in). Upstairs she had seemed such a nice young lady, but in the dungeon she battered him maniacally with all forms of weapons of torture. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t going to put up with that and, replacing himself with a member of the audience (who had to sit there, expecting torture, until the end of the play), went off with his chainsaw in order to track down the unfortunate Miss Lebbos backstage and arrange for her final entrance in two black refuse sacks. The piece ends with some spoken words of advice about how to handle anger management issues. A bit late for that methinks.

A thoroughly entertaining hour of loopy comedy. Nothing phased our two performers at all and they carried on the constant repartee with the audience throughout the entire show. A privilege to witness two performances of such great energy and creativity – I really loved it.

Review – The Show Must Go On, Lead Feather Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 18th May 2016

The Show Must Go OnThere’s no escaping the emotion in this tear-jerking examination of cancer sufferers and those who are left behind. If, when you saw the title, The Show Must Go On, you thought of the Queen song fronted by Freddie Mercury, then ten points to you – and it is indeed a highly emotional lyric about survival against all the odds. If, like me, you thought of Leo Sayer, then lie about your age, take a minus mark and go to the back of the class.

Beautifully structured, we are presented with three interweaving scenarios. There is the story of Alice, a perfectly ordinary young woman, who still has to help her useless brother with his tie, and whose best friend wants them to sing (inappropriately) with a thrash metal band; she discovers she has cancer. There is the story of Tracy, kind-hearted and down to earth, married to Bill whom she loves dearly despite all his faults; she receives a ghastly diagnosis and hasn’t long to live. There is the story of Gareth, a feeble stand-up comedian who does his act sitting down, unable to face the future without knocking back too many JDs, telling progressively more upsettingly black jokes about the cancer that is going to kill his wife.

The Show Must Go On castBut it’s not all grave, if you’ll pardon the pun. The harsh reality of the subject matter is juxtaposed with several humorous moments – there is always going to be black comedy in such times. For me, the most successful was Jake Rivers’ brilliantly awful stand-up routine, carrying on with these desperately terrible jokes long after the initial humour had subsided, the agony of the character’s personal tragedy staring at us directly through Mr Rivers’ pained eyes. It was superb. All the scenes between Penelope May as Alice and Madeleine Hagerty as her friend Sally also worked extremely well, ranging from the carefree girls’ banter to the much needed loving support as the effects of the disease kick in, all done with great lightness of touch and true sincerity. The only scene which, for me, was not credible, was where two doctors were prevaricating about telling Tracy about her awful diagnosis. I appreciate it was meant to be black comedy, but, in my (reasonably limited) experience, doctors have no time to hum and hah about breaking bad news to someone. They just get on and tell you in your face and if it’s a shock then that’s tough. There was, however, a wonderful antidote to the doctors, in the form of Miss May’s portrayal of the Macmillan nurse, a character who was kindness itself, and which was accurate and believable in every way.

There were a couple of big pathos moments: Gareth’s conversation with the Macmillan nurse, when she hasn’t been informed that his wife has died – sincerely and emotionally performed by both actors; Alice’s possessions being packed away into sad little cardboard boxes whilst Miss Hagerty gave us a strong rendition of the title song. There were also references to both the late David Bowie and Sir Terry Wogan, which brought the continued relevance of how cancer is a part of everyone’s lives into sharp focus.

Lead FeatherBy the end at least two members of the audience were in tears. This was a play with a power and a passion and a message that addresses us all. It tugged on the heartstrings but I never got the sense of its being mawkish or self-indulgent; it hit just the right note. Three performances of great sensitivity were required to carry this material, and the three actors met that challenge superbly. Congratulations to all concerned!

Review – The Final Cut, La Zénna Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 18th May 2016

The Final CutThe Final Cut is an astonishing, brave, informative, and emotional one woman show about Female Genital Mutilation. There. There’s no other way of saying it. In the tiny studio at Hazelrigg House, Elizabeth Adejimi conjures up a village in rural Nigeria, where tradition is compulsory and there’s no thought given to altering the practices of generations. Traditional garments hang on the washing line and by taking an item of clothing off the line and putting it on, she becomes some of the different characters in the village. Simple, but amazingly effective.

It’s all about Aminata, a young girl that Miss Adejimi brings to life with such a sense of juvenile fun. We see her in her school uniform, brushing the path, nicking the snacks, dancing to the music of the village. One word from her scary sounding mother and she’s worried that she’s heading for a smack. She gives us such an atmosphere of total innocence. She seems to have no idea what’s coming her way.

We meet her mother. A kind woman, a good woman. A loving mother and a good wife. Very traditional, she has always done what society has required of her and will ensure that she passes that tradition on. We meet her father, the hunter. In this remarkably matriarchal society, he plays no part in deciding how the daughter will be brought up. His job is to provide a home and food. And we meet the cutter – what other word is there to describe her? Again a traditional woman, who believes implicitly in the goodness of her trade, who recognises that her act is steeped in the mysteries of the past, and that she must continue to practice her art – even though she admits she doesn’t really understand why.

La ZennaAnd finally we see Aminata again, dressed for the ceremony; scared, embarrassed, desperate for help or support from anywhere but it’s not there. She just has to yield to the tradition, lying on the floor, allowing her pants to be pulled off so the cutter can wield her knife; crying out with the searing pain; in tears of humiliation and abuse; left with as much dignity as she can muster, she has to get on with her childhood. Except that this is now seen as her becoming a woman. Probably at the age of about nine.

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly moving performance – Miss Adejimi takes us through all the emotions, of laughing with Aminata at her childish foolishness, warming to the mother as she offers us in the audience some snack refreshments in creole, fearful yet strangely respectful of the cutter lady; and finally sharing the agony and humiliation of the deed. It’s incredibly effective; she gains an instant rapport with the audience which guarantees that we are with her all the way – we feel her pain just as much as she does. You’d think this was a tough watch; but, actually, not a bit of it. Her characterisation of young Aminata is so delightful that we love spending time with her. It’s only that final, shocking scene that absolutely pulls you up sharp.

A recorded voice at the end provides some factual details about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation; at first, it seemed completely superfluous after the extraordinary emotion of that final scene. But actually it does serve a useful purpose to understand the myths and deceptions that are fed to the local people to make them comply with the barbarism. There was also a questionnaire that we were asked to complete, which did make you think again about the act directly after the play had finished, and was probably helpful in making the whole event educational as well as entertaining. And if it sounds bizarre to say the show was entertaining, then sobeit; I was hugely entertained by all the characters, the beautifully written script, and the whole presentation of the show. Admirable, brave, and superbly constructed, Miss Adejimi gives us a total tour de force. First class from start to finish. This little production deserves a life outside of this festival.

Review – Forever Looking Up, Illicit Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 17th May 2016

Forever Looking UpIf you thought the Mars One Project was a new way of calorie-controlling your chocolate intake, think again. It’s genuine – a project to establish a community of astronauts living on Mars. Crew One are scheduled to depart this earth in 2026, so if you want to volunteer, get your application form in now. Once you’re there though, there’s no way back, so the selection procedure for the best people is rightly arduous. Can you imagine what it would be like to go up to Mars in a rocket and know you will never come back?

That is the situation facing the characters in Illicit Theatre’s Forever Looking Up. They are the first group to head for Mars and have to come to terms with both the excitement of the mission and the tedium of being stuck in a rocket with people who you might not necessarily choose to spend the rest of eternity with. Whilst the Mars One project uniquely sets the scene, the issues facing our five heroes are largely the same that they might encounter in most closed communities. Apart from airlessness of course. And no gravity.

TrailerI loved the opening with its introductory video, allowing us to meet the five astronauts separately as they were interviewed for the camera. In just a few minutes you gained subtle insights into their characters that prepared you for their real life presentation on the stage shortly afterwards. I would say this particular footage was the finest use of video in any of these Flash Festival productions due to its originality and relevance. The next sequence in the show was almost contemporary dance in its format – with movements that suggested need and support, the confinement of individual thought and activity into enforced togetherness, and the emotional strains that the closed community would suffer because of their restrictions. I thought it was very well performed and I would have been happy to see more of it!

However, that would mean eating away at the time for the “scripted play” element of the piece, which would have been a shame. Once the astronauts’ responsibilities, characteristics and the basic plot have been established, it concentrates on two relationships between two people, and their repercussions on the wider group. Firstly: the blossoming love between Lily and Kaseem, which is against all the rules. The others snitching on them, telling the bosses that they’ve been kissing, felt like some kind of underhand sneak behaviour at school. I thought that was very sharply done. Second: the friendship between Zoe and Jessica, which builds well with Jessica showing pastoral care for Zoe’s troubled past – did she kill her mother? I think she may have. But Zoe misinterprets Jessica’s friendship for something more, and when Jessica reacts, horrified, at Zoe’s misplaced gaydar, the concord of the group is lost forever. Harvey’s solution to the Zoe/Jessica issue is final – although I understand in subsequent performances it might not be quite so clear cut!

Illicit TheatreIt’s a very engrossing and gripping observation of a closed community imploding. I really liked the oppressive sense of a Big Brother somewhere out there, watching their every move, sounding his alarm whenever they went off piste. Technically, on the performance I saw, the backing music was too loud for the voices to carry sufficiently during those sotto voce private conversations. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed all the performances. The stage loves Sharni Tapako-Brown and she stood out like a beacon of brilliance in all her scenes. Even just in the diary scenes, when she’s not interacting with anyone else, she made the words come alive. And her conflicts of emotion with Zoe were stunning. Talking of whom, Sophie Guiver invested Zoe with a really strong personality, enigmatic with her past and the reasons why she left earth; and calculatingly vindictive after the misunderstanding with Jessica. She has a great stage presence and very confident delivery and I really enjoyed her performance.

As the senior chap on board, Charlie Clee’s Harvey quickly reveals himself to be much more fragile a person than you would like to be in charge. Awkward, nervous, and lacking in the personal charisma to be the authoritative figure that you would need to be at the helm, I thought Mr Clee did a great job in conveying those personal limitations and failures in what must have been a very hard role to grasp. Normally he doth bestride the stage like a Colossus, so it was riveting to see him portray so different a character. Vandreas Marc and Yolanda Lake made Kaseem and Lily into a very believable couple who start to come together and then start to fall apart. They were also particularly graceful in the movement sequences.

Forever Looking Up castAn absolutely fascinating piece that takes common themes of everyday life and projects them up into space, providing the added stress that the Mars One mission would definitely place on relationships. Intriguing and thought-provoking, and beautifully acted throughout. Congratulations to all concerned!

P. S. My spelling and grammar nerves were jagged by the time I’d read some of the company’s promotional material. I’ve honestly never seen so many mistakes on the printed page! I wouldn’t mention it but it’s a real bugbear of mine. Next time guys, get a good proof-reader. I don’t mind doing it for you!

Review – 100 Acre Wood, Nonsens!cal Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 17th May 2016

100 Acre WoodDeep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays, you’ll find the enchanted neighbourhood of Christopher’s childhood days. Hmm. I reckon that if your enchanted neighbourhood was made up of the inhabitants of this household, any Christopher Robin worth his salt would run a mile. But there is a link between A A Milne’s cuddly cosy children’s characters and these four troubled beings – they’re all (loosely) based on Christopher Robin’s pals. It’s a clever device and works very well, although the play itself is enjoyable and engaging enough to stand alone without any reference to Pooh.

When we entered the auditorium, Eddie was seated at the front of the stage, nervously waiting for an appointment with his counsellor where we discovered that he has had a breakdown following the death of his father in Afghanistan. Behind him, three oafs in a bed, which made an amusing contrast, but you appreciated absolutely why Eddie was anxious about returning back to the house-share with what would likely be not terribly understanding mates. However, he does pluck up courage and return home, and during the course of the play you see him attempt to re-integrate back into his old society and also see how his domestic partners (the aforementioned oafs) also have their own devils to cope with. There’s the neurotic and tidiness-obsessed Rachel, with her cleaning routines and her minute repositioning of furniture; the hale and hearty but prone to anger Tommy, who tries to bully the rest of the group into doing what he wants; and the apparently carefree William (Trespassers William, perhaps?) who suddenly becomes aware that his voracious appetite is not just something to entertain others with but is a serious health problem – both mental and physical.

Nonsensical UmbrellaI don’t know if the cast remember the TV series The Young Ones (surely they’re too young) but it strongly reminded me of that show with its wayward household of lovable miscreants, who lived in a surreal house with a talking fridge and other soft furnishings with opinions. 100 Acre Wood also has cupboard doors with a mind of their own and a talking fridge – no special effects, just an actor with a door in front of his face. It was so silly that it was very funny – but never over-the-top so that it got in the way of the serious message of the play. It also has a really well written and spoken sarcastic and surreal narration. There’s a lot going on there! No wonder Rachel was so neurotic. Freedom for eggs!

The cast gelled together extremely well and gave a really strong performance throughout. I thought Jared Gregory carried off Eddie/Eeyore’s general moroseness with great aplomb; that first scene, in particular, I found very moving and absolutely believed in the character’s plight and distress. His sense of embarrassment, and his simple inability to express himself was really well conveyed. Top work sir! I also thought Kieran Hansell was excellent as William/Pooh, channelling his inner James Corden with his hail fellow well met façade, hiding further distress. The scene with the honey (or hunny, I suppose) was one of those Ayckbournian moments when you start laughing heartily at what is ostensibly a really funny moment then the laughter catches in your throat as you realise you’re watching someone fall apart. There were opportunities for that scene to be played even more – shall we say… distastefully – and on reflection I think that discretion was the better part of valour.

Nonsensical Theatre CastDanni-Louise Ryan’s Rachel/Piglet successfully made us feel anxious with her own anxiety, fluttering around the set cleaning and moving things, never able to relax, lacking the courage and/or character to join in the lads’ fun, but not wanting to anyway because of the mess they would make. There was a wonderful scene between her and Mr Gregory when she suspects that he is plucking up courage to confess lurve, but in fact what he wants to tell her about his therapy. It was both funny and sad, as neither got to give or hear the message they wanted to convey. There was an excellent stagecraft moment when some paper cups that had been sent flying in an earlier scene and landed by Mr Smallmind’s feet, were retrieved by Miss Ryan for a later scene. And we just thought she’d forgotten to pick them up earlier, more fool us. I also enjoyed the robust performance by Elliot Holden as Tommy/Tigger, bouncing around the room and leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His was perhaps the character with the least light and shade to it, but he has great stage presence, and I loved his confidence and the clarity of his voice, which is something never to be underestimated!

A really good mix of the surreal and the harshness of reality, producing four excellent performances and hugely enjoyed by the audience. Definitely one of the best shows of the festival!

Review – Red Inquisition, Memoir Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 17th May 2016

Red InquisitionWhen I was growing up, the fall-out from American McCarthyism was still a Pretty Big Thing. He was the paranoid senator who interrogated creative artists to sniff out subversive communists from within their midst. To what extent the “red threat” was a real danger to America, or was just the paranoia of the times, is probably a matter of conjecture. For good measure, he also encouraged discrimination against homosexuals too, so he was obviously an awfully nice chap.

I always really enjoy plays, songs, films, books and so on that examine their own creative process – often it is the spark of creative genius. Spandau Ballet’s True is about how to write the song “True”. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (particularly the film) is all about how to make the film of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. Red Inquisition starts with our three actors discussing the benefits or otherwise of their new rehearsal space (which just so happens to be the space we’re sitting in) and what the subject of their new show will be. For me, this sense that the actors are sharing the same experience as the audience (and vice versa), living in the same surroundings, and breathing the same air is the stuff of theatrical electricity; and I was instantly captivated by that opening scene – which was also extremely funny, with all three performers demonstrating terrific comic ability. They consider a number of possible themes for the new play, running them up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, until they discover a book about McCarthy and his witch hunts. The subject matter fascinates them – and a show is born.

Red Inquisition castIt is indeed fascinating material; and they’ve dug deep into the archives to find footage of three particular McCarthy victims – Lena Horne, Arthur Miller and Charlie Chaplin. Three people who, by virtue of their creative genius, totally changed the world. Relevant video footage is compared with the actors’ own interpretations/impersonations of these people, bringing black and white memories sharply into today’s focus. I would say that it was much more effective when they were reviving live performance, such as Ciara Goldsberry’s beautiful singing of Lena Horne classics, or Jaryd Headley’s accurate recreation of the Chaplin gait; less so when they simply repeated scenes on video that they had already acted out. Mr Headley gave us a strong and moving portrayal of Chaplin, the effect of which was weakened by the on-screen repetition of the same words. We didn’t need to see that proof, we already believed you!

Daniel Hadjivarnava had the toughest job trying to make Arthur Miller come to life, because, as the video footage showed, in real life he was a very dull man! It may sound like a back-handed compliment to say that Mr Hadjivarnava portrayed Miller with considered accuracy, but actually I was very impressed with the way he captured him. Ms Goldsberry conveyed Lena Horne’s immense dignity and star quality with excellent understanding and insight; and Mr Headley absolutely brought Chaplin to life with his rather neurotic watching of old classics and tentative trying-out of new routines, needily relying on the support of others. He was also absolutely 100% confident in his delivery of every line and was a pleasure to watch.

Memoir TheatreThere was a joke about Uta Hagen: four things I didn’t know about her. It sent the (majority of student) audience into paroxysms of hilarity. My fellow blogger and I sat in stony silence. Was it an in-joke? Or were we just stupid? The latter I can entirely believe. If it’s the former – don’t alienate sections of your audience into feeling like second class citizens, it doesn’t make them feel valued! I also thought there was a missed opportunity to make the content more relevant by concentrating on Miller’s Death of a Salesman and not on The Crucible, his allegory about McCarthy. Maybe they thought it was too obvious?

The choice of video at the end was inspired, powerfully showing how all these great talents triumphed through their adversity and regained their reputations and honour in the long run. Quite right too, a very positive and uplifting note on which to end. Fascinating subject matter given thoughtful treatment and with some excellent performances. Most enjoyable!